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Getting High on Dopamine:

Neuroscientific Aspects of Pleasure

H. Ümit Sayin


Hedonism and pleasure are one of the main goals of human life. Pleasure can be accepted as a reward for the brain, while the major reward neurotransmitters are dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin and glutamate. Boost of dopamine in the “hedonic hot spots” creates euphoria, delight, pleasure, contentment and is associated with happiness. The reward circuitry and pleasure centers in the brain involve the ventral tegmental area (VTA), nucleus accumbens (NA), substantia nigra (SN), ventral pallidum, insula, lateral thalamus, cingulate cortex, hippocampus, amygdala, medial prefrontal cortex and orbitofrontal cortex. Pleasure is a learned enjoyable phenomenon and pursuing the pleasure principle is one of the crucial goals of human life. However, to some extent of pleasure, due to the release of dopamine and glutamate and the activation of D1-like excitatory dopamine receptors and NMDA receptors, may induce different forms of psychological addiction. Sexual motivation, sexual drive and orgasm also use the same reward circuitry and similar neurochemicals in the brain. The experience of “getting high on dopamine” has been one of the primary longstanding goals for human beings, as well as for other higher primates and animals during the normal course of evolution. Today, it is known that pleasure and sexual hedonism may even alter synaptic plasticity, and may influence a variety of psychological responses and the personality of individuals, as Sigmund Freud had pointed out a century ago.

KEY WORDS:  pleasure center, hedonic hot spot, dopamine, glutamate, oxytocin, NMDA, reward circuit, hedonism, orgasm, motivation, sexual drive

SexuS Journal ● Winter 2019 ● 4 (11): 883-906


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